Ever since science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, there has been plenty of conversation on the web about his demise, the pressures of being a literary slash pop science rock star, and the psychology of his ethics as a journalist.
Even though what he did was unquestionably out of line, this post neither defends nor demeans Jonah Lehrer, but rather attempts to examine a deeper question—what does it mean to live in a world in which big ideas have become mass commodities? In a conversation on blogs.plos.org, Seth Mnookin says something interesting about authors like Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and the notion of “idea journalism”:
They’re not selling readers on their ability to unearth fresh information that the world would never have known had it not been for their shoe-leather reporting; they’re selling readers on their ability to elucidate new/novel ways of understanding the world.
An idealist would posit that the explosion of idea commoditization is the result of our inherent need for knowledge and understanding. So let’s explore what it means to be an “idea journalist.”
What lies beneath this discussion are a series of other profound issues, such as the price authors pay for being prolific on-demand. Our hyper-connected world has placed an extraordinary amount of pressure on creative individuals. Why would a high-profile author be tempted to recycle or manipulate content? To what degree can truth be modified for the purpose of creating a compelling narrative? What does this tell us about the nature and essence of how ideas behave?
Andrew Price, in a post in Good.is writes that Jonah Lehrer isn’t the only one capitalizing on this demand for Wow! stories. “There’s a whole industry. Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakonomics guys, certain TED Talks, Slate—they all trade, to some extent, on the snappy, mind-blowing idea you didn’t see coming but totally seems kind of true.”
Price believes that the problem is that it’s unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. “To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.”
There’s certainly value in being able to create fresh perspectives, but to be brilliant in a moment’s notice is extremely elusive, which may lead writers to double dip in their creative arsenal. Something can also be said about the dizzying levels of consumption a meme-hustler must go through in order to shape a new paradigm or to produce a fresh perspective. This often requires writers to sift through thousands of pages and posts, taking an obscene amount of notes, then culling together the best ideas into something that makes sense, and if all goes well—something remarkable. Jonah Lehrer was known for reading more than 100 science journals a month.
In a post by Megan Daum of the LA Times, she writes: “New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer’s downfall is not his alone. What has also collapsed is our collective tolerance for complexity.” Being able to distill complex ideas for the masses is not an easy task. Audiences seem to have a low tolerance for big complex ideas, so our culture has created an ecosystem that places more value on the art of distilling heady material into digestible nuggets. This is unfortunate, yet stays true to the essence of innovation—which strives to do more with less.
Megan Daum would also caution this discussion by positing that, “It’s worth noting that Lehrer’s impulse to come up with tidy quotations that seamlessly fit into his theme happened in the context of a culture in which the concepts of ‘documenting’ and ‘manipulating’ are no longer always at odds.” Daum believes that audiences are inclined to not only prefer cleaned-up quotes, they’re likely to favor a more staged version of events over the more banal, factual version. Sounds like every narrative arc of every season of every reality television show.
We’re a content-driven society with countless media products available for consumption—every one of them packaged up, crafted with sizzle and marketing savvy. These products are smart and catchy: Blink, The Long Tail, The Purple Cow, and Freakonomics are just a few examples of meaningful memes that have spurred on a new generation of sexy concepts, all aiming to create mindshare movements. Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson, Steven Johnson, and Seth Godin each have their own brand of meme-slanging. But what does it mean to live in a world in which new perspectives and sexy ideologies have become lucrative commodities?
Ideas move the world and shape the future—we’re a culture addicted to lush imaginary landscapes, narrative arcs, and happy endings. We inherently seek knowledge and perspectives that will enrich us and help us shape meaningful perspectives about the world. In a post in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he writes:
[But] we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now.”
MEME-SLANGING: IDEA CULTURE AND CREATIVE COMMERCE
Meme-slanging is big business. Big ideas that are valuable and original are hard to come by. This business is lucrative, and people today seem hungrier for insight and enlightenment than ever before. We have access to the never-ending “long tail” of content—more than any other time in history, which is why, as creators and consumers of content, it is our responsibility to be purveyors of truth, and not just seekers of the next big idea.
Perhaps we’ve arrived at a time in history in which we need extremely bold and audacious ideas that are conveyed to us through simple means—this is a result of the explosion of user-generated content. More content means more clutter. More clutter means more demand for remarkable content that cuts through the noise.
But most of all, big ideas give us meaning. We seek meaning, change, and purpose, and perhaps these flashy, big ideas transform us, giving our lives significance. Ideas are about engagement and transformation. But with this culture of mass-intelligentsia also comes the demand to constantly fill that void—which is even more challenging.
Most people live their whole lives without coming up with a single brilliant idea that can capture the imagination of the masses. This is dangerous because this demand has also created a need for churning out enlightenment as if it were created in a Twinkie factory.
As a consuming culture, we crave the next big idea, the next wunderkind writer. Big ideas inspire us, because big ideas create more ideas. Something can be said about the new idea culture that has emerged with the explosion of crowd-accelerated innovation and the advent of organizations like TED—the world-renowned conference for spreading ideas about technology, entertainment, and design.
In a post by Felix Salmon, he writes: “TED isn’t going away: indeed, it’s so successful that it is spawning dozens of competitors, even as many publications, including the New Yorker as well as Wired, the NYT Magazine, the Atlantic, and many others, move aggressively into the “ideas” space.
Salmon writes that TED-think isn’t merely vapid, it’s downright dangerous in the way that it devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricky emotional and narrative devices. TED certainly has a brand promise to fulfill and part of that is the art of making talks remarkable. Something can be said about a culture consumed by creative commerce and intrinsic value created by marketers. But when big ideas are cultivated strictly for the purpose of financial means, they become counter-intuitive to the poet and critic, Lewis Hyde’s notion of pure creative commerce, as he writes in his book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World:
As is the case with any other circulation of gifts, the commerce of art draws each of its participants into a wider self. The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person. Works of art are drawn from, and their bestowal nourishes those parts of our being that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, from the group and the race, from history and tradition, and from the spiritual world. In the realized gifts of the gifted, we may taste that zoe-life that shall not perish even though each of us, and each generation, shall perish.
Art deserves participation by both creator and recipient, but commoditization forces creative professionals to produce work that often doesn’t meet their own artistic standards. After all, Daemons cannot be summoned at will. Carl Zimmer, the author of A Planet of Viruses and a contributor to The New York Times, also chimes in with a comment about Jonah Lehrer’s sins by saying, “Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could be so blindingly original that there wouldn’t be some overlap between what ends up in these different formats. It’s an unrealistic expectation.”
One could assume that Jonah Lehrer had immersed himself in a complex personal egosystem with increasingly unrealistic (perhaps self-imposed) expectations to be prolific on demand. The rigors of the creative process are not easily understood. Take for instance the arduous task of fact gathering and having to curate thousands of ideas into a succinct communication—let alone an inventive new combination of ideas that can be packaged into one sexy meme.
Being a merchant of culture is certainly a tough job—especially as a science writer. Distilling thousands of ideas into digestible bits is not easy and it’s only fun half the time. I know because I’m also an idea hustler. I love big ideas and I’m constantly chasing moments of catharsis—these flashes of insight in which new consciousness is created. I’m fascinated by the notion of ideas themselves—how they are born, how they transform us, and how they connect us with one another.
This is what Lewis Hyde refers to as commerce of creative spirit in his book The Gift. It refers to anything beyond financial transactions and focuses on creative interactions. It describes the value you receive beyond a ticket price at a museum, or how a book has changed your life. Hyde illustrates the gift that comes from a producer’s inspiration, the gift that is her art and craft and talent, and the gift that is passed on to her audience. Ideas are at the center of creative commerce, as Hyde writes, “Gifts—given or received—stand witness to meaning beyond the known, and gift exchange is therefore a transcendent commerce, the economy of re-creation, conversion, or renaissance. It brings us worlds we have not seen before.
We live in a world of media content clutter, which is why we crave big ideas. Maybe we should start viewing these nuggets of truth more preciously – as gifts – rather than mere commodities. By placing more value on these ideas and understanding how difficult it is to garner meaningful insights, maybe we can begin to understand the pressure placed on an idea journalist like Jonah Lehrer.
Audiences will continue to be more critical of idea journalists. And the pressure will remain. This is certain. But we—as both consumers and creators also need to place more value on ideas themselves and treat them as gifts, because lyrical insights are not produced in factories and assembly lines. They come from our unconscious imagination. They are not just displays on shelves that make us look smarter. They teach us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. These ideas have the potential to help us design a better world.